“La Fiesta” (1973) Woody Herman with Gregory Herbert, Andy Laverne, Frank Tiberi and Ed Soph

“La Fiesta” 

Composed by Armando “Chick” Corea; arranged by Tony Klatka.

Recorded by Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd for Prestige on April 9, 1973 in New York.

Woody Herman, soprano saxophone, directing: Larry Pyatt, first trumpet; Gil Rathel, Walt Blanton, Bill Byrne, Bill Stapleton, trumpets; Jim Pugh, first trombone; Geoff Sharp, trombone; Harold Garrett, bass trombone; Frank Tiberi, first tenor saxophone; Steve Lederer and Gregory Herbert, tenor saxophones; Harry Kleintank, baritone saxophone; Andy Laverne, electric piano; Joe Beck electric guitar; Wayne Darling, electric bass; Ed Soph, drums; Ray Barretto, conga drum. Greg Herbert doubles on piccolo.

The story:

The 1970s were a strange decade for a lot of reasons. In this post, I will focus on the strangeness in the world of swing and big band jazz, such as they existed in that decade.

Many of the eminences of the swing era were dead by the 1970s. In this group were both Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan, Jan Savitt, Jimmie Lunceford, and Chick Webb, among others. Then there were the leaders who were retired. In this group were Artie Shaw, Larry Clinton, Ray Noble and Charlie Barnet, among others. There were the leaders who dabbled. Most notable in this group was Benny Goodman. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis had put together a great jazz orchestra, but that band toured very little, though it did play regularly at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan on Monday nights. Similarly, The Tonight Show Orchestra was a top-notch organization, but it was confined to playing largely during commercials and station breaks on the long-running NBC-TV Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Finally, there were the leaders who continued to play and tour on a full-time or near to full-time basis. At the beginning of the 1970s, this group included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Harry James, Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman, among a very few others. (Above left: Woody Herman in 1972 in the A & R Recording Studio in Manhattan.)

The bandleaders who were still active then faced a constant challenge, really a creative dilemma. On the one hand, the few booking agents who were still operating and getting bands work then tended to be older men who had lived through the glory years of the swing era. Their belief, perhaps, or possibly it was their marketing strategy, was expressed in the mantra the big bands are coming back. Implicit in that was the idea that the big bands people tended to remember nostalgically from the swing era had gone somewhere, or disappeared entirely, which of course was untrue. Nevertheless, nostalgia was widely used to market big bands. This strategy was not that successful. The people who had made up the audiences for the swing bands during the swing era were, by the 1970s, past fifty. For a multitude of reasons, they usually did not go out to venues where live music was being presented, unless it was a special occasion.

Impresarios like the late George Wein developed and perfected the marketing strategy of the jazz festival as a means to get middle-aged music fans out of their homes and away from their television sets. This concept proliferated through the 1970s, and gained considerable popularity through the next thirty years. It resulted in many employment opportunities for musicians, and very often provided them with a stimulating atmosphere in which to make music before enthusiastic, receptive live audiences. But these audiences tended to be comprised largely of people past fifty. And most of these jazz festivals or jazz parties either did not or could not present big bands because of the cost. Thus the big bands that were in operation then almost always were able to play only if they toured.

The actively touring bandleaders were always looking for something that had musical validity, yet would enable them to be “relevant” in the 1970s world of long hair, beards and bell-bottom pants. To a substantial degree, that musically valid something was not jazz. Count Basie recorded at least two LPs of Beatles tunes (some quite jazzy, some not). The great Duke Ellington found it necessary to play, with understandably decreasing enthusiasm, a medley of his hits on every gig to mollify audiences. Bandleaders wanted to please their audiences. That was nothing new, and was not an unreasonable objective.

But pleasing an audience presumes that the artist knows what his/her audiences want, and then gives it to them. This approach may work fairly well on a gig, where the bandleader and musicians can see who is in the audience, and have some idea of what that audience may want to hear. But what about the overall musical policy of a band day after day, week after week, month after month? Endless repetition of any music, no matter how good that music is, will inevitably result in boredom on the part of the musicians who are playing it. One of the wonderful things about jazz is that it is never, by definition, exactly the same. But if 1970s big band audiences, for whatever reason, seemed not to embrace jazz very enthusiastically, how did bandleaders reach them? (Above left: Woody Herman surrounded by his band members in 1937, shortly after Woody started his career as a bandleader, which would last until 1987.)

One way various big bands and jazz musicians reached young people in those years was by conducting music clinics in colleges and universities. The originator of this concept was Stan Kenton, who had always had a pedagogical if not evangelical (in the non-religious sense – music was Kenton’s religion) aspect to his personality. Word spread quickly among big band musicians, most of whom by the 1970s were graduates of music schools themselves, that these clinics were challenging, stimulating and rewarding. And the students who participated were young people who were really interested in music and jazz. Woody Herman participated in the jazz clinic movement, albeit reluctantly at first. Former Herman sideman Bobby Burgess recalled: “Woody didn’t know if he would like the clinics at first. But he soon found that he had a great audience (in the clinics), was paid good money for doing them, and most important, he gave the students a real message by doing what he did best …leading a band.” (1)

The picture above is of Woody Herman surrounded by his band in 1974. Woody once said:        “The team members are always young. It’s the coach who keeps getting older.” (1A)

The involvement of Woody Herman and his musicians with greater numbers of younger people perforce led all involved into different musical areas. Pianist/arranger Alan Broadbent recalled: ” Halfway through my tenure with Woody, Bill Stapleton came on the band. Tony Klatka was already on. We hit it off because we were all writers, and we wanted to change what was happening. We figured that we could do that by using some Blood, Sweat and Tears material. So I did a chart on ‘Smiling Phases.’ (From time to time), we rehearsed the band without Woody. We played a high school prom somewhere, and Woody wanted to hear some of the charts we did. Actually, we had to talk him into it, telling him the kids would dig it. So we played ‘Smiling Phases’ and the kids went crazy! It was the popular music of the time and it was easily adaptable. So Woody said ‘wait a minute’! Suddenly, his juices started to flow again…” (2)

Herman’s drift into the world of “jazz-rock fusion” was facilitated by the young musicians in his bands starting in the late 1960s, and continuing well into the 1970s. Woody had subscribed as early as the mid-1940s to the bandleading philosophy that he humorously characterized as “allowing the inmates to run the asylum,” at least in part. What he meant by that was that he listened to what his sideman had to say, musically as well as verbally, and was not averse to incorporating their ideas into his band’s presentations. There is no doubt that Herman always ran a tight ship musically, in that whatever his bands played, they played it well, and often with great inspiration. But he was nevertheless always open to someone bringing him a new arrangement that was in some way different from his band’s usual musical approach. His incorporation of elements of rock music into the repertoire of his bands in the 1970s was one of the results of this bandleading philosophy.

The encroachment of rock and related musical idioms into the jazz-oriented bands of the 1970s caused a good deal of debate among jazz critics and fans. Along with the playing of tunes that were from the world of rock, various instruments from that idiom were often employed, including electric guitars whose sounds were altered and indeed distorted on occasion, electric keyboards that produced a variety of sounds, heavy triplet and back-beat drumming, and perhaps most notoriously, the electric bass. I had many conversations with jazz musicians during the 1970s and 1980s about these things, and invariably they would answer my questions about why are you using…fill in the blank, with something like, man, this is what audiences expect.

The only musician I remember taking a very definite stand against using an electric bass in a jazz context was the great Milt Hinton. He also acknowledged that on certain jobs, when he was told to use an electric bass, and did so, but grudgingly. Then he explained that in his opinion, which I respected greatly on matters of bass playing, that the electric bass was “like using a sledge hammer to work on a piece of sculpture.” He went on to explain that the electric bass as an instrument was incapable of creating the nuances, shading and variety that is possible with a string bass, no matter how skillful or sensitive the player. Nevertheless, the electric bass and other instruments and techniques that some would call musical impedimenta were used in varying degrees by some jazz-oriented bands for many years through and after the 1970s.

The music: 

Although the Chick Corea (1941-1921) tune “La Fiesta” was first recorded by him in 1969, I suspect strongly that the recording that inspired arranger Tony Klatka to prepare a chart on it for Woody Herman’s band came from Corea’s Return to Forever LP, which appeared in 1972, and was very much a jazz-rock fusion album. Klatka’s arrangement for the Thundering Herd is a marvelous showcase for the talents of all of the musicians in the Herman band, who perform it with both precision and passion. The chart is in 6/8 meter, which one may think might impede swing. Just the opposite happens: this performance swings from beginning to end.

The introduction spots drummer Ed Soph’s high-hats and bass drum, and bassist Wayne Darling, who employs his electric instrument most effectively in this music. The chirps from the electric piano are provided by Andy Laverne. There follows a sequence with Gregory Herbert (3) playing a joyous melodic fragment on his piccolo in concert with pianist Laverne. (Above right: Gregory Herbert and Woody Herman in 1974.) Andy Laverne then takes an exuberant solo lasting 16 bars. Notice the great support he gets from Ed Soph, whose playing throughout this performance is superb. A three-way sequence follows on the tune’s bridge with the saxophones perking up first, then the trombones, then the trumpets. Laverne returns for eight bars to finish the chorus. (At left: Ed Soph in the 1970s, pictured with bassist Rufus Reid, who is not on this recording.)

The open trumpets start the next chorus with the melody that evokes something having a definite Latinesque character. They are supported by the open trombones which then play rhythmically. The brief but lovely singing melodic transition played next, in unison by the saxophones, provides a contrast. This will be a recurring motive.

There follows another intensely rhythmic passage probably played by lead trumpeter Larry Pyatt and lead tenor Frank Tiberi, in unison. Notice how the ensemble rises up toward the end of this sequence, and then shouts. Tiberi returns with a jazz solo as the ensemble falls away. He is accompanied at first only by the intense rhythm provided by Darling on bass, Laverne on piano, Soph on drums, and Latin rhythm master Ray Barretto (4) on conga drum. As Tiberi reaches the climax of his solo, the reeds and brass swell behind him. (At right: Frank Tiberi.)

Then we hear the transitional sequence again, built by the trombones, trumpets and capped by the melodic fragment played in unison by the saxophones. A reprise of the earlier shout sequence follows, but stops just short of the final brass blast that had been played previously. As the ensemble quiets, pianist Andy Laverne plays a jazz solo. He is accompanied, as Tiberi was, first by the rhythm section, then by the ensemble, with the trumpets prominent. The ensemble builds to the recurring shout then those sweet contrasting reeds. (At left; pianist Andy Laverne. The bassist is Mike Richmond, who is not on this recording.)

The next chorus spots the band playing the melody quietly yet rhythmically, leading to another shout. Maestro Herman is heard for a few bars playing a swirling figure on soprano saxophone above the band.  Then the volcanic ensemble finale unfolds, led by Ed Soph’s downward cascade of drum explosions, which starts on his small tom-tom, moves to his floor tom-tom, and concludes with his thundering bass drum and a cymbal crash.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) A and R Recording in New York was owned and operated from the 1960s into the 1990s by Phil Ramone, one of the most brilliant recording engineers in the history of recorded sound. His book Making Records …The Scenes Behind the Music (2007) provides many insights into not only recording music, but into working with the artists who make the music.

(1) Woody Herman …Chronicles of the Herds, by William D. Clancey with Audree Coke Kenton (1995), 284.

(1A) The performance of “La Fiesta” presented with this post was included on Woody Herman’s 1973 Giant Steps Prestige LP. That LP won a Grammy award in 1974, which led to a period of enhanced popularity for Woody and his band. The picture showing the personnel of the Herman band on its next Prestige LP, Thundering Herd, contains images of many of the musicians who had worked on the Giant Steps LP. The personnel on that album was: Dave Stahl, Buddy Powers, Bill Stapleton, Tony Klatka (tp,flhrn) Bill Byrne (tp) Jim Pugh, Steve Kohlbacher, Harold Garrett (tb) Woody Herman (cl,as,ss,vcl) Frank Tiberi (cl,ts,ss,bsn) Gregory Herbert (ts,pic,fl) Gary Anderson (ts,fl) Jan Konopasek (bar) Andy Laverne (p) Chip Jackson (b) Ron Davis (d)

(2) Woody Herman …Chronicles of the Herds, by William D. Clancey with Audree Coke Kenton (1995), 284.

(3) Gregory Herbert (1947-1978) was a gifted jazz musician who I was lucky enough to hear with both Woody Herman’s band and with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in the 1970s. He joined Blood, Sweat and Tears later in that decade. Tragically, he was the victim of a drug overdose while touring with that group, dying in Amsterdam January 31, 1978. Here is what his colleague from the Herman band, Gary Anderson, said about him: “I spent two years with Gregory on the road with the Herd. What a dynamic player whose life was tragically cut way too short because of stupidity and a bad case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gregory tempted fate constantly with a “Bird” mission in the back of his mind. But all of that can be overlooked because he possessed a unique talent … that combination of soul, heart & technique that is rarely found in any player that young. I heard it on a nightly basis—whether playing for 10,000 people at a festival or 100 on a Friday night at an Elk’s lodge … Gregory had it all in front of him. Oh, the notes we never heard …”

(4) Ray Barretto was a Manhattan studio musician who specialized in Latin percussion. He was not a regular member of the Herman band.

Here are links to some other great performances by Woody Herman:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/01/13/red-top-1945-woody-herman/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/10/28/summer-sequence-part-4-1947-and-early-autumn-1948-woody-herman/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/02/16/bijou-1945-woody-herman-with-bill-harris-and-dave-tough-and-1959-henry-mancini/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/04/26/happiness-was-a-guy-called-joe/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/12/10/let-it-snow-1945-woody-herman/

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